SALT LAKE CITY - A Utah disposal company seeking federal permission to import more than 20,000 tons of nuclear waste from Italy has raised its campaign contributions to lawmakers by hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Salt Lake City-based EnergySolutions Inc. is aggressively donating to members of key energy committees in Congress as it increasingly seeks lucrative federal contracts and legislation beneficial to the nuclear power industry.
Since 2005, the company's political action committee, executives and investors have poured nearly $400,000 into congressional campaigns through January, up from about $40,000 in the four previous years, Federal Election Commission reports show.
The company's growing influence in Washington will be tested this year as it tries to kill a bill that would ban the importation of low-level radioactive foreign waste, which would be disposed at its dump in western Utah's desert.
"I'm sure this means many millions of dollars to them, so I'm sure they're going to be working hard to stop it," said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the bill's co-sponsor.
EnergySolutions increased lobbyist spending from $680,000 in 2006 to more than $1 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.
The company already handles some foreign waste, but the amount it wants to import from Italy would be the largest ever from another country, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman David McIntyre said.
The volume and the publicity surrounding it have generated more than 900 public comments on the company's application to the NRC, he said. Import-license applications typically don't receive more than a handful of comments, if any.
EnergySolutions says it welcomes the comments but contends Gordon's bill is unnecessary.
"The NRC has the scientific and technical expertise to make thoughtful decisions based on the facts," EnergySolutions spokesman Mark Walker said.
The company has never shied away from the fact that it donates heavily to state politicians, but the emphasis on contributing to nearly four dozen federal lawmakers from across the country is new.
Political giving, Walker said, "gives us the opportunity to participate with elected officials and offer solutions to growing concerns within the energy sector."
Last year, EnergySolutions CEO Steve Creamer donated the maximum allowed by law - $28,500 - to Democratic and Republican senatorial campaign committees.
The biggest recipient of EnergySolutions' recent spending spree is Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., an ardent supporter of nuclear energy.
Graham has received $24,000 in campaign contributions from EnergySolutions' PAC and more than $19,000 from company investors and executives since December 2006.
He is encouraging the NRC to allow the construction of two nuclear power plants in South Carolina, where EnergySolutions manages the site through which the Italian waste could be imported.
The company wants to import the waste through the ports of Charleston, S.C., or New Orleans for processing in Tennessee.
After processing, about 8 percent, or some 1,600 tons, would be shipped to EnergySolutions' Utah facility, about 70 miles west of Salt Lake City, for disposal. It is the largest and only privately owned radioactive-waste dump in the United States.
The plan has drawn opposition from environmental groups.
"Public opinion should rule and not political opinion that's influenced by campaign donations," said Tom Clements of Friends of the Earth in Columbia, S.C.
He fears Charleston will become the nation's gateway for nuclear waste, putting it at risk in the event of an accident.
The bill by Gordon and Reps. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., and Jim Matheson, D-Utah, would allow only nuclear waste that originated in the United States or came from an overseas American military base.
"If we start taking it from other countries, then it's going to diminish our ability to take care of our waste with a rejuvenated nuclear power industry," Gordon said.
EnergySolutions says capacity is not an issue, insisting that the Italian waste would represent less than 1 percent of all waste disposed at its Utah site each year.
Gordon said the bill would also limit the possibility of terrorists targeting a shipment at a U.S. port.
It's unclear when the legislation will receive a hearing, but the NRC is expected to rule on the Italian waste this summer.
Gordon, Whitfield and Matheson sit on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Since 2005, committee chairman John Dingell, D-Mich., has received $6,000 from EnergySolutions' PAC, while executives and company investors have given him more than $7,000 since December. Matheson has received $6,000.
EnergySolutions has spent heavily to polish its image and bought the naming rights to the arena where the NBA's Utah Jazz play. It became a publicly traded company in November.